Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Lost Summer of 2020

Here I am stuck stateside. I am so jealous, as I hear tales of friends in the UK actually being able to venture out to the isles. But for me that's a 50/50 hope for 2021. A couple of weeks ago I did manage to get to an island. Blake Island State Park is only five miles from my home in West Seattle. I camp there at least once a year, and a few weeks ago I went over for two nights. Because of Covid they were only offering weekend trips, so I had to put up with the typical Friday and Saturday night drunken yotties, who carry massive coolers of booze ashore and proceed to party the night away. Saturday night was the worse, and bizarre to say the least. The idiots insisted on playing the soundtrack of Sound of Music at 100 decibels. I guess it could have been worse . . . 

In pre-Covid times the island hosted a well know Native American experience, where they bake salmon on open cedar fires. In 1993 Bill Clinton hosted one of those dinners for those attending the APEC (Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation) conference in Seattle. But this year they've had to resort to offering a smaller dining experience. One benefit of this, to campers like me, is that they have a bar open to all comers. You have to imbibe outside in the sunshine, and I was able to have a couple pints of Manny's, my favourite Seattle beer.

Clinton & company in 1993

Quieter times

The island is full of raccoons - appropriately masked, I'm glad to report - and I had a good laugh when around 2am, just as the drunks had all passed out, the raccoons raided their campsite, devouring all the snacks they'd left out. One dimwit left their tent open and ran screaming into the darkness. I had to laugh again as a fearless raccoon scampered into it looking for a snack. (In the second photo below you can see the metal food lockers they provide to keep food from the critters, which my 'friends' in the adjacent campsite decided not to use.) Oh how I missed the silence of a campsite on the remote moorland of Lewis.

At daybreak, while the numpties were sleeping off their hangovers, it felt so good to make as much noise as possible as I cooked breakfast. It was only instant coffee and instant oatmeal, but it's amazing just how much noise you can make if you really try.

So that was my island adventure for 2020. Not much, but better than nothing, and I hope to get out for another camping expedition before the days start getting short. I also have some articles in the works for Scottish Islands Explorer, which should keep me out of trouble in the near term. The long term plan is to set foot on Mingulay in eight months, and then Sula Sgeir in ten months. Fingers crossed!

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

North Rona - A Year Later

Here I am spending my afternoons sitting on my deck, tossing peanuts to blue jays and squirrels. They are very happy I'm here, but I can't help looking back to where I was a year ago this week. I was on far off North Rona, on my fourth cruise as a guide on Hjalmar Bjorge. I was looking forward to seeing Rona again, as eight years had passed since my last visit in 2011.

After a walk to the lighthouse we explored the village ruins, a clusters of cells and rectangular structures built along the south side of the monastic cashel. 

At times, upwards of thirty people lived on Rona, surviving off the birds, seals, and the island’s seventeen arable acres. It was a hard life, and the entire population starved to death at least once. In the early 1800s only six acres were under cultivation, and the last permanent residents left in 1839.

The stellar attraction of the village is St Ronan’s Cell and Church. The cell dates to the seventh or eighth century; the church added to its west end in the thirteenth century. The only entrance to the cell is low in the east wall of the church. Several inches of muck usually cover the ground, and as the portal is only a metre high you have to squat down to enter. Once inside it is clear this is not an ordinary beehive. The high rectangular interior, similar to some of the large beehives on Skellig Michael, and one of the cells on the Flannans, signifies it as an oratory.

There are many other beehives on Rona, but aside from Ronan’s Cell they are in a very sorry state. There is also a rectangular structure called the Manse, adjacent to the cashel wall, built from the stones of a dozen beehives that once stood there. And just north of Ronan’s cell are two mounds that mark the sites of beehives cannibalized to build the church.

And so as I toss peanuts to the jays and squirrels in the summer of 2020, I dream of visiting Rona once again. I am signed onto Northern Lights Rona/Sula Sgeir cruise next June, and dearly hope I'll be allowed to visit the UK to set foot, once again, on far off Rona - and finally attempt a landing on Sula Sgeir of the gannets. Thinking positive, I've told the squirrels and jays they'll be on their own next summer. 

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Kerrera - A Year Ago

Here I am stuck at home, with a total incompetent in charge of things. It probably means the virus will run rampant for the rest of the year, and ten's of thousands of unnecessary deaths. It seems trivial, in all of this, that I am concerned about not being allowed to return to the UK in 2021. But those trips have become very important to me over the past 30 years.

At this point, the best island-going I can do is by living in the past. It was in July of last year that I visited a dozen Hebridean islands, starting with Kerrera. I took the relatively new north-end ferry, and then spent a couple hours wandering around the north tip of the island. After a visit to the Hutcheson Monument, and the nearby monastic ruins, I made my way to the shore opposite Rubha a' Cruidh (cattle point). That 'point' is actually a tidal island connected to Kerrera, from where they used to swim cattle to the mainland. It was low tide, which I'd assumed would allow for a dry-foot crossing. But my assumption was wrong. There was still a two-foot-deep channel. 

There were several large stepping stones, but they were rounded, spaced far apart, and far too slick to step on. It was as if the owners wanted the ambiance of stepping stones, but not ones that could actually be used. The new owners must be well off. No usable stepping stones are needed because they've built a hundred-foot pontoon dock, and installed a helipad next to the mansion.

The water was shallow enough to wade across, but I decided against it. It would be worth getting wet if I could wander freely around the island. But I could see that a gate barred access to the track on the far side, which leads to the mansion that was built on the islet several years ago. I got the definite feeling I would not receive a warm welcome. There were bound to be alarms, and Alsatians ready to eat me, so I decided not to spoil my brilliant day with an unpleasant encounter.

I have fond memories of Rubha a' Cruidh. Prior to the construction of the mansion there was a modest house on the island, which looked like a peaceful retreat from 'big city' Oban. I remember many cruises out of Oban, where the sight of that simple house signaled the beginning, and the end, of island adventures. Another memory was Samson, who stood guard on the shore of Rubha a' Cruidh for many years. He would bid us farewell as we departed, and greet us on our return - always ready to repel any unfriendly visitors.

Whoever built the new mansion must not have liked Samson. Either that, or the old owners of Rubha a' Cruidh wanted to keep him. When the mansion was built Samson disappeared, but a year later he made a brief appearance on Oban's North Pier. He was not there for long, and I've not seen him since.

I then made my way to the Marina to await the ferry back to Oban. I had a few minutes before it left, so I took a look at the Waypoint Restaurant. Unfortunately I did not have time for a pint. I promised myself I'd return someday for that pint, and boarded the ferry.

Next up would be a visit to one of my all-time favourte group of islands - the Shaints.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Yet Another Bell Stolen

I recently learned some sad news. Twenty years ago I visited a unique island in Loch Shiel, a dozen miles southwest of the Glenfinnan Monument. This small island has two names: An t-Eilean Uaine (the Green Isle), and Eilean Fhianain (St Finnan's Isle). I wrote about the visit in chapter 20 of book 1, and the highlight was seeing Clag Fhianain, a bronze handbell that has rested on the altar of Isle Finnan for several centuries. 

The sad news was that the bell was stolen from Eilean Fhianain in 2019. There is a scorching place in hell waiting for the thief, and he will have a lot of bell-thieving company. The loss of Clag Fhianain is just one in the long list of Celtic handbells that have been stole over the years. There is St Kenneth's Bell, taken from Inchkenneth in the late 1700s, St Kessog's Bell, which went missing from Loch Lomond in the 1800s, and St Modan's Bell last seen at Ardchattan. Prior to the loss of Finnan's Bell, the most recent theft was when St Adamnan's Bell was stolen from Insh Church in September of 2017. I visited Insh in 1995 to see the bell, and was surprised to find it mounted on the church wall, completely unattended.

Although there are curses, and legends, that these bells always find their way home, I don't have high hopes that they will be recovered. But, just perhaps, at some point in the future these low-life thieves will die an unpleasant death, and their families will discover the bells hidden in dusty closets and return them. That's what happened to the Clanranald Stone, stolen from Howmore on North Uist in 1990. Five years later the heavy stone was found in a London closet after the thief died. It is now back in the Western Isles where it belongs. One can hope a similar fate awaits the bells, and the thieves, of Isle Finnan and Insh.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Dolphins at Play

Being stuck at home has one benefit. I have been able to make a start at organizing my camera memory card backups. I am always afraid I'll lose photos, so in some cases I've made backups of backups of backups. All resulting in terabytes of files scattered about in ten different external hard drives.

As I go through all these files I occasionally stumble upon videos, like the ones in the last few posts, that I'd totally forgotten about. I have taken very few videos over the years, as when I do I end up concentrating on the camera and not the moment. I was so excited when GoPros came out that I bought one in 2010. But it became just one more thing to pack and keep charged, so it only made its way to Scotland once. Since then what few videos I've taken were using my trusty point-and-shoot, so the quality is not too good.

Here is one of those point-and-shoot videos. It dates to 2009 and shows a half-dozen joyful dolphins riding the bow wave of Halmar Bjorge. These days when the dolphins show up (as they usually do) I leave the camera off and enjoy the show.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Don't Go On The 8-3-0

Since 1990, on my way to the isles, I must have driven the A830 highway from Fort William to Mallaig a dozen times. Prior to 2009 much of it was a terrifying single track, especially so for rookie left-side drivers. The road had narrow hairpin turns, and blind corners, where at any moment a large truck carrying fish or timber could appear out of nowhere coming head on. The danger was not just in front. A look in the rear-view mirror would usually show a gargantuan tour bus on its way to the Skye ferry. The bus would be so close that you could see the driver's agitated face in the mirror. The cause of the agitation was not the dangerous road, but how slow you've been driving.

If you've ever driven the road to the isles when it was single track there is a song guaranteed to make you smile. It is Don't Go On The 8-3-0, and can be found on the McCalmans 1993 album Honest Poverty. Have a listen - lyrics can be found at  Don't Go On The 8-3-0. My favorite bit is:

When lorries lose control, you've one last wish
Don't let me die under 20 tons of fish.

Friday, May 29, 2020

I Miss the Puffins, too

In a normal year several thousand tourists make day-trips from Oban and Mull to see the puffin colony on Lunga. When those trips are operating there can be close to a hundred people on the island, all wanting to get close to the colorful birds. It is exhilarating to sit next to the burrows and watch as the Puffins go about their business; and busy birds they are, continually flying in with beakfuls of eels to feed their young. Those not busy feeding spend their time bickering, kissing, and growling at each other. (The birds, not the tourists. Although I have seen a few growling tourists over the years). The puffins are used to visitors, but I am sure they are happy to be left alone this year.

The best way to avoid the crowds is on a small boat cruise, where they'll set you ashore before the day-boats arrive. The following video was taken in 2008, when I was on the sailing yacht Zuza. Including myself, there was a grand total of four passengers on the cruise. (It doesn't get much better than that.) This allowed us all to spend some quality time with the puffins. The video gives some sense of what that's like. (You can see Zuza in the background of the first scene).